For John Zaruka, the decision to buy Sterling Hills Golf Club came down to wanting to give back something to a golf community he’s been part of for more than 30 years.
About seven years ago Zaruka took control of the banquet and restaurant facilities at Sterling Hills. When previous owner Tom Park decided he wanted to sell the golf course, he gave Zaruka the first crack at buying the Camarillo-based course.
Zaruka, the founder and owner of ZGolf Food and Beverage Services, wasn’t interested at first, but as time went on he thought it was a good idea.
Zaruka approached longtime friend Lee Harlow, the former general manager at Olivas Links and Buenaventura, about forming a partnership to run Sterling Hills.
Zaruka and ZGolf would continue to run the banquet and wedding facility while Harlow would form his own management company to run the golf side of the operation.
“We both have a passion for golf and for this community,” Zaruka said. “I consider this my retirement place. I live five minutes from here so this is my home.
“Lee and I have been friends for a long time, so it’s a chance for both of us to do something together for this community. Our goal is to make Sterling Hills the county’s golf course, one that golfers from all over will come and enjoy for a long time.”
For Harlow, taking over at Sterling Hills was an opportunity to get back in the business side of golf.
He was a fixture at Olivas Links and Buenaventura, serving as head professional and general manager during his 22-year run at the two courses. In 2008, Harlow decided to see what golf was like beyond the Conejo Grade when he accepted a job with the county of Los Angeles as a golf administrator.
Harlow returned to Ventura County last year, joining the teaching staff at River Ridge.
“I have a passion for golf and I think there is a great opportunity to do something great here (at Sterling Hills) for golfers in Ventura County,” Harlow said. “I’ve know John and his wife since 1986, so I feel really comfortable working with him.
“I am excited about it because this course has great bones. It is a good golf course and a fun course.”
Harlow and Zaruka have started making changes they believe will restore some of the luster to Sterling Hills.
A few weeks ago, members of the United States Golf Association came to the course for an analysis and to offer any recommendations. While Harlow said they are still waiting to hear back, they have already started to make changes, including bringing in new golf balls and mats at the driving range, and a plan to repave the parking lot.
Harlow told employees the goal is to make the golf course better each day, even if it’s only a small step at a time.
“We’re going hole by hole and looking to see what needs to be done to improve the playability of each hole,” Harlow said. “It starts with turf conditions. Over the last few years, the water issues have impacted everyone in golf, and that includes things here.
“The greens are really good but we want to make them even more playable and also make sure the rest of the turf conditions are as good as possible.”
Having been at Olivas Links when it did a renovation that included a turf reduction, Harlow said they are exploring ways to take turf out of play, which will improve the course’s environmental footprint without impacting golfers tee to green.
“We’re figuring out the agronomics,” Harlow said. “… We’re looking to make the course more playable for all golfers. Maybe take out some bunkers, add some tee boxes, make it a more fun golf course to play.”
Harlow was hoping Katrina Sutton would remain as the head professional but she opted to leave to pursue other opportunities, so Harlow is handling that job as well.
Harlow and Zuruka are eager to bring more fun to Sterling Hills. They have talk about having music playing around the course and offering a variety of playing options — like more nine-hole play, creating a couples leagues, or adding a wine, dine and play day.
Zaruka also believes the course needs to establish a firm greens fee price, probably somewhere around $40, and he wants to introduce an all-inclusive golf package that would cover everything from range balls to food and beverages during the round.
“We’re working on developing some marketing ideas that will help us reach out to the community and bring golfers back to Sterling Hills,” Zaruka said.
Harlow and Zuruka want to increase the presence of men’s and women’s clubs, and they have talked with Ventura County Junior Golf Association director Mark Wipf about bringing junior golfers back to the course.
“I talked with the coach of the Oaks Christian boys golf team and they want to have this be their home course this season,” Harlow said. “We’re open to all the high schools to come and get involved with the facility. That is all part of being here for the golf community.”